This morning, before the sun crested from the canyon, I walked out into the icy morning with Chico prancing out ahead of me. He loves his morning walks. It is hard to imagine that last year we were travelling in a van, the year before that we were walking the beaches of Paredon in Guatemala before each sunrise, and the year before that walking the snow-covered sidewalks in Logan, UT. My walks are normally my time. I don’t walk to write. I walk to meditate, and write to help clear the mind. This morning I walk because I need to write. I am looking for metaphor.
Once, when I was young a friend became an enemy. He was the new kid in a school where the rest of us knew each other since kindergarten and I befriended him. In fact, I stood up for him one day on the bus when he was being bullied. A couple of years later, he would turn on me. I understand more about why and how. His family life was not good. And not that mine was great, but people who love me have always surrounded me and I was, and am, fortunate enough to have those people remind me. I have always felt loved. I have always felt supported. As we moved into junior high school, this friend started to skip school, started to smoke, and I wouldn’t partake. While I never liked school, I feared my mother’s wrath too much to ever not go. I might have been defiant about my homework, and I checked out most days while at school, but I surely would never choose to skip. The story of this friendship is a longer story, too long for this short walk, too long for what I need to tell right now. Needless to say, eventually this friend wanted to fight me, and I refused. He would throw rocks at me while I tried to deliver my newspaper, my job I had through junior high school. I felt betrayed and hurt by it all. It happens.
As Chico sniffs out ahead of me, his nose to the ground, he tears off the trail and I can’t tell why, then I see it. A jackrabbit is bounding off. It runs down to the tall grass by the edge of the creek and makes a hard left downstream. Chico runs into the grass but goes straight into the creek bed and loses the jackrabbit. I love his intensity when on the hunt. He runs patterns trying to find it again, but I call to him, and he quickly relents. I love that about him. He is a Zen master. In one moment, he is consumed by something; he would give life up to the hunt, and in a few seconds it is gone, and he is sauntering along the trail looking for something else. That is a lesson I need to learn too, but not what I was looking for.
A lot has happened lately. I was kicked out of the house I lived in because of an argument over gun control. It was silly rhetoric about right and wrong. For me, I know that everything is more complex than that. We don’t really draw lines in the sand and tell people they are with us or against us. For me, I would almost always choose to be against a person who says that. However, not because of the person, I am never against a person. I take things as they come. I may agree more lately with one party on issues, but I am not a true party member. I am not against guns, but I am more than willing to negotiate and compromise. That is what our dialogues are lacking these days. People think they have the “correct” interpretation and can’t even begin to accept that it is still an interpretation.
The sun is peaking over the canyon now and I can feel the warmth on my face. The sun heats the ground and rooftops appear in smoke to the warming rays. In the distance I see coyotes crossing the creek and disappearing out into the fields of grass. They are watching us. They see Chico as a threat, but he doesn’t see them at first. Once he does, they are too far away to really care. I wonder if he knows what they are. Are they just another dog in the distance for now? I am walking the canyon looking for a metaphor, something to tie this whole thing together. I seek answers in nature for everything. Maybe I already know the answer and I find the metaphor to fit my need, but there it is, usually waiting for me. Yesterday we walked the fence line up the canyon. I am not used to following boundaries. Only a few such ignorant creatures listen to them. The other side intrigues me, and I just might jump the fence eventually and venture out to the untraveled. I thought this might be the metaphor I needed. We walk fence lines and gaze out to the other side with longing. We always skirt boundaries: physical, emotional, and even perhaps spiritual, philosophical and cognitive. This is something I am wrestling with too. It, sort of, works. I am deepening my personal practice, but not what I am looking for right now.
No, the fence line didn’t work. As we came off the canyon in the dark last night, the gun range was a blaze with shots ringing out into the night. And if I was writing only about guns, this might work. It is strange the way people practice to kill. Take aim at targets of humans. I do think you manifest parts of life. Maybe it is as simple as the metaphors you see. You see what you think about. Maybe, I only pay attention to the gunshots because of all the news about guns, but that is not what I am looking for.
Now, I feel I am losing more friends. I was asked recently to get into a heated debate on campus about Outdoor Education. I wasn’t seeking this out, but it is something I care about. Everyone knows I love outdoor education. I used to teach for this program before I left for my PhD. I never thought I would be back, but here I am. They are having a communication breakdown. It is some of the same rhetorical arguments I hear coming from gun people, the same stuff I hear coming from politicians. You are with me or you are against me. These people are evil. These people are liars. These people are sociopaths. These people have an agenda. We are in Nazi Germany right now. It is rarely true.
Chico and I continue to walk the river. It is an interesting river; most call it a flood canal now. My friend calls it Mud Creek, but isn’t sure. However, if you pull up the topographic maps, you can see it is, or was, a perennial creek. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say that many times the Chico Creek actually flowed that way. Most creeks as they reach the alluvial plain don’t have one direct route. In my hometown, they decided to maintain the current flow. For Chico, I would guess it went the main route when John Bidwell first came to the valley, and once they built the mill, they maintained that route when they could and diverted when they had to. Rivers don’t know they have routes. They act to gravity and force. We walk to where the flood canals splits. The town has built damns and levies to maintain a certain flow going a certain direction. Because when a river finds something in the way, it finds another route. That is what is does. Sometimes it takes years to find that other route, but it does.
When Chico and I would climb up above the Bonneville Shoreline to watch the sunsets over Cache Valley in Logan, I would dream of watching that lake as it rushed out. What a flood it must have been. They say it broke through on the north and found its way to the Snake River. Boulders moved, and banks eroded; I would imagine being down stream and not knowing the force of water coming your way. The river is doing what it does.
A professor of Psychology recently was telling me that water is not wet. A single water molecule is not wet. Wetness, as a property, happens only when there are lots of molecules, and even than, people interpreting it feel the property. Wetness is a human condition…or a dog too, but he doesn’t seem to think about it the same way I do. He is very willing to jump into bed wet, curl up, and go to sleep. Damn him and his Zen life.
Maybe, I am wrong. Water doesn’t have a route, but a river does…but the river is not the water. It is a creation of water molecules gliding over surfaces as gravity takes it down, and as the water falls it drags the mountains down with it.
I came into this Outdoor Education debate because of what outdoors has done for me. Some might call it nature, but that term is troubling for me. Everything is natural to some extent and that is open to interpretation too. Outdoors works for me. It is what is outside of the door, but it isn’t perfect either. Still, Outdoor Education is about getting people outside and using the out-of-doors as a classroom for learning. Some focus on skills such as kayaking or rock climbing, some use it for communication and team building, some use it for therapy, healing, and reflection, some use it for research, preservation, and understanding. Of course, all of these cross over into each other too. We travel outdoors with friends, or with family, or with classmates, or co-workers, or complete strangers, or even alone with just your dog. We hike out, stroll out, drive out, stumble out, crawl out, saunter out, boat out, climb out, run out, paddle out, hell…we even parachute out into the unknown for even more unknown reasons. I have gone for all these reasons, with all these people, in all these different ways and never regretted it. For me, there isn’t a capital “T” truth to it. If there is, I take it from the great Himalayan climber Willi Unsoeld, we go out there to come back and help society become better. That, to me, is the essence of Outdoor Education.
Outdoor Education at Chico has been a great and wonderful program. In fact, it has been one of the best programs in the nation if not the world. The professors have been incredible, the location perfect, but it has reached a dam. I can’t tell what fist collapsed into the path of the river, what Digger Pine relented to the force of the river and caved into the path, but there it is. The water is backing up, more and more detritus and debris gathers behind.
I like the way water moves. When something is in the way, it finds another path. If need be, it will sit and gather strength, it will pool up, pond up, lake up, and eventually break through and move again. Water will freeze and expand to break rock, it will carry nutrients to roots, and in the cycle it creates weather patterns and can move mountains. Waves crash against shores, winter storms avalanche down mountains, rivers rage, and rain pours, and without it, we do not exist. We scan other planets for water. On Mars, we can see ancient rivers where water might have once made life possible. People migrated searching for water. It is torture and death; it is baptism and salvation.
Some people think that whatever happens to the program here, it won’t be the same, and some people think therefore it won’t be as good. For me, that is too hard to tell. I don’t know if this works as the metaphor for which I was searching. Is this the answer? Everything changes. Stagnation is death. The water is pooling and if it was up to me I would do what humans have always done, try to control the destructive forces of nature and minimize damage. I would send a little bit of water out each direction and diffuse it. Maybe it won’t work that way. Maybe nobody can come together and we will simply wait to see where it breaks through and deal with the damage of the flood.
Right now, the Snow Geese are migrating. I hear them at night and throughout the day, squawking to each other high in the sky. I often wonder if there is silence up there, if they ever simply glide on the winds and watch in awe of the world below them. No, it is just part of life. They migrate, the seasons change, the temperature drops, the earth tilts away from the sun, and the water moves. Change is inevitable. Friendships mature. The outdoors doesn’t have answers. I don’t even know if it has questions. The metaphors I see identify me, and are part of my experiential existence. People will be upset at me, people are already upset at me, but it is nothing I created. While this water was backing up, I was in another ecosystem, but I will work to slowly peal away the debris and release tension. To do this, I must stand in front of it, tugging on each root ball and bark-less tree trunk, and hope that it doesn’t break loose and wash me away.